By Despina Williams Parker
An essay on a World War I infant mortality exhibition that did not provide any meaningful solutions to the problem it was convened to address has earned the History Department’s first ever Best Seminar Paper award.
Recent graduate Melissa Franson (History, ’14) wrote the essay, entitled “National Baby Week: Saving the British Race,” during associate professor Andrew Evans’ spring senior seminar on World War I. The essay examines the National Baby Week exhibition, held July 2-7, 1917, in Great Britain during the middle of World War I.
Franson said she’d hoped to explore the general topic of women and children during World War I when she encountered an advertisement for National Baby Week during her initial research using the Sojourner Truth Library’s digital archives. In the London Times editions published during the period, Franson found advertisements, articles and posters that provided a window into the event.
As she continued her research, Franson uncovered statistical evidence that undermined the stated purpose of the exhibition. “I found the [infant] mortality rate was actually declining during the war years rather than climbing,” said Franson, who believes the exhibition organizers’ anxiety had less to do with actual infant deaths than with British military casualties and maintaining social status.
“What alarmed British society was the high mortality rate of British soldiers in the war, especially the officers who exemplified the ‘desirable’ characteristics of the British race, and thus the context of National Baby Week encompassed a larger concern over the survival of the British race during the war,” Franson noted. Her research suggests that “the aim of the organizers of National Baby Week was not so much to help with the infant mortality rate but to ensure that the ‘right’ kind of babies were being ‘saved.’”
Franson cites as evidence the type of events held during the exhibition – garden parties, parades, a beautiful baby show – which did not speak to the actual causes of infant mortality, such as poverty, malnutrition and substandard medical care.
A book entitled, Maternity: Letters from Working Mothers, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, brought to light what the exhibition’s lavish offerings obscured. The letters provided first-hand accounts on the myriad ways poverty affects families, and the hardships that result in infant deaths.
“The National Baby Week exhibition did little to address the problems facing lower class families, yet purported the desire to save the babies. Given that the promoters and organizers of National Baby Week were predominantly members of the upper-class of British society and the problems of infant mortality were felt primarily by lower-class British families, I found it fascinating that the event largely ignored the larger problems found in British society that caused infant mortality,” Franson said.
History faculty members who taught the senior seminar during the 2013-14 school year selected papers for the award, and a prize committee made the final selection. Evans said the committee felt that Franson’s paper was “a model of the interplay of evidence and argument. She insightfully analyzes the way a particular event (National Baby Week) elucidates larger social and cultural issues of British social classes. She also provides a comprehensive historical context for that analysis.” Franson received a small monetary award for her work.
Franson also earned the honor of being named one of the History Department’s “Outstanding Graduates.” The campus-wide program recognizes the academic achievements of exceptional graduates from all New Paltz departments. A recognition ceremony was held in May, and Franson received a certificate from President Donald Christian.
Evans called Franson one of the History Department’s “real stars.”
“She’s one of those students who is ferociously learning all the time,” he said.
In the fall, Franson will attend SUNY Binghamton, where she has been accepted into the PhD program for history with full funding. She said she considers herself a “social historian,” and will focus on early American history and the subfields of women’s history and British history.
She credited History Department faculty members Evans, Louis Roper, Susan Lewis and Reynolds Scott-Childress with inspiring her to “reach for the next level.”